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By Gleick, James

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He struggled for years, in vain, to penetrate the problem of turbulence in gases and liquids. Feynman developed a stature among physicists that transcended any raw sum of his actual contributions to the field. Even in his twenties, when his published work amounted to no more than a doctoral thesis (profoundly original but little understood) and a few secret papers in the Los Alamos archives, his legend was growing. He was a master calculator: in a group of scientists he could create a dramatic impression by slashing his way through a difficult problem.

When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world,” wrote another New Yorker, the critic Alfred Kazin; he grew up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood a little poorer and almost as remote, another district of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants occupying that unusual boundary between the urban and the rural. “There were always raw patches of unused city land all around us filled with ‘monument works’ where they cut and stored tombstones, as there were still on our street farmhouses and the remains of old cobbled driveways,” he wrote—“most of it dead land, neither country nor city… .

He did not ring the bell. The village’s main street, Central Avenue, seemed shabby and narrow. The population had become largely Orthodox Jewish, and Feynman was vaguely disturbed to see so many yarmulkes, or, as he actually said, “those little hats that they wear”—meaning: I don’t care what things are called. And casually repudiating the culture that hung as thick in the air of his childhood as the smoke of the city or the salt of the ocean. The Judaism of Far Rockaway took in a liberal range of styles of belief, almost broad enough to encompass atheists like Richard’s father, Melville.

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